As they take the floor Monday night for Game 7 of the Western Conference final against the Rockets, the Warriors face an odd question.
Who are they?
You’d think, as they suit up for the 99th game of the season, their identity would be pretty much established. But the personality of a team can morph and change, depending on the opponent, the situation and — most commonly — the anxious feeling that what they are doing is not working.
Therefore we have gotten Kevin Durant doing a LeBron James at the top of the key, giving the floor a quick look and then either launching a contested 3 or trying to barrel into the lane.
The alternative is the beautiful game we’ve come to know. It is jitterbug dribbling by Steph Curry, long swooping 3s from Klay Thompson and point forward passes by Draymond Green.
The Warriors have tried both approaches in these playoffs. But here’s the qualifier. Only one works.
Houston has a collection of burly, beer keg-shaped defenders, who are not going to let you lower your head and bum rush your way into the lane. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker can chest up with the best of them. And before he was injured, Chris Paul was another stocky, bump-and-grind defender.
With the Rockets forcefully nudging him, Durant will catch a pass in the lane, but by the time he’s dribbled three times and been hip-checked, he ends up 20 feet away, trying a fadeaway jumper.
The irony is that the counter to defensive brute force is delicate offensive finesse. The Rockets overplay their man, so back-cuts are open for Thompson jump shots. If a defender is right in Curry’s face, he can go herky-jerky and get around him.
But with the series on the line and each team a game away from the NBA Finals, it is easy to lose faith in the process. And it isn’t as if you are not going to see rushed, one-on-one shots jacked up.
They happen in every game. The tyranny of the 24-second clock means that, as the numbers wind down to single digits, there is no such thing as a bad shot. Just get something up there and at least hit the rim before the buzzer goes off.
So, before we join the chorus of “KD has to stop playing hero ball,” let’s be clear. Durant is the Warriors’ best one-on-one option. With the clock expiring, no one has a problem with him working for his own shot. In fact, the team expects it.
But first, some offensive flow. It’s a delicate balance.
That’s why it was such a nice move Saturday night when coach Steve Kerr offered Durant a seat and went with a core of Curry, Thompson and Green.
And suddenly the Hamptons Five (named for the group formed when Durant held job interviews in the Hamptons) turned back into the Three Amigos.
The ball skipped from Curry to Green to Thompson. Open looks were created on the move, and 3s were splashed.
It was like the return of an old friend. Writers who cover the team seem to eventually describe the free-flow offense as “equalitarian,” and that’s the perfect word for it.